Benefits of Telehealth Platforms During a Pandemic and Beyond

June 2, 2020

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many patients with substance use disorder and their providers have been able to continue meeting regularly despite physical distancing practices.

The telehealth platforms that allow for this to happen were seen as up-and-coming only a few months ago. Now telehealth is indispensable in treating patients with SUDs. It protects both patients and staff by promoting physical distancing, slows the spread of the virus and helps patients stay engaged with clinicians, among other things.

“It’s absolutely essential,” said Shawn Ryan, MD, MBA, ABEM, ABAM, president and chief medical officer of BrightView Health, which offers personalized outpatient treatment in locations throughout Ohio. “All the factors that are normally a challenge for substance use disorder – social isolation, anxiety and depression – those are all heightened during this time, so remaining connected to patients is very important.”

Additionally, Dr. Ryan explained, many patients have transportation challenges and a fear of getting COVID-19. Telehealth solutions solve both issues. Providers are now clearly seeing how telehealth can benefit patients even beyond the COVID-19 crisis, Dr. Ryan believes it will remain an important tool that physicians and other providers can continue using in the future to expand access to addiction treatment.

“There are people who enjoy, desire and are best supported by in person interaction; so best case scenario is you have a hybrid telehealth/in-person strategy that removes barriers of transportation when need and supports direct interactions for people that are capable, willing and appropriate to do so,” he said. “You could then meet more patients in the form they need to support their recovery. It allows us to better manage so many important factors for our patients.”

Of course, the staying power of telehealth will largely depend on how well it can be reimbursed.  ASAM recommends that clinicians seek guidance from their state department of health or their addiction/mental health services agency to ensure they are compliant with the ongoing changes with telemedicine and can bill appropriately.

“The conversation about telehealth rules and reimbursement really should be framed in the context of meeting patients where they are, which has been a primary mission and mantra since the origination of our organization.” Dr. Ryan said. “Telehealth literally empowers us to deliver treatment where patients are, It is the definition of that mission.”

Dr. Ryan said it would be a shame if when everything gets back to “normal,” the usage of telehealth platforms for SUDs falls back to pre-COVID-19 numbers.

“We have seen tremendous strides in new ways of delivering care to patients these last two months. It would be a massive regression from current systems, and it would hinder innovation if everything went back to the way it was before when the emergency exemptions are over with,” he said. “That would be a real problem.”

SUMMARY: Six Benefits to Using Telehealth in Your Practice

  1. Provides safe treatment remotely and gives direct support to patients that enjoy in-person interaction, have transportation challenges, and/or a fear of getting COVID-19
  2. Ability to monitor patients to identify potential and confirmed cases
  3. Reduces the risk of spread in high volume/traffic areas such as waiting rooms
  4. Continues patient engagement with patients that may have heightened anxieties during isolation
  5. Reduce likelihood of patients participating in activities that could increase risk of exposure
  6. Protects patients and staff while reducing potential for exposure for those considered most vulnerable and promoting social distancing

For more information and guidance on implementing telehealth in your practice visit ASAM's COVID-19 guidance and resources HERE.